Let's start with total federal outlays on a fiscal year basis. For perspective, the chart below compares a simple one-year percentage change with its annualized (geometric) two- and three-year counterparts. The recent surge in growth rates is due to fiscal year 2009, but there's been a sharp slowdown in the pace of federal spending in the two subsequent years. The future is unclear on this front, but the past is crystal.
As you can see, the latest growth rates for FY2011 don't look radically out of line with recent history. True, it's debatable if we can even afford historically moderate rates any longer. Meanwhile, the annualized three-year rate of 6.5% is near its average pace since the mid-1970s. That's higher than what we saw in the second half of the late-1990s, but one can counter that a 6.5% rate is roughly in line with the trend in the decade before the Great Recession hit. The debate about whether it's too high is a separate question, of course, but if history's a guide it's hard to argue there's been a dramatic surge in the rate of growth. That may not mean much with mounting deficits, but for simplicity let's stick with spending rates. One budgetary challenge at a time, please.
Another relevant point: Most federal outlays fall under the heading of mandatory spending, which includes the entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. Because mandatory spending is to a degree an automated process, it's reasonable to review the trend in so-called discretionary spending in isolation. These are the programs that receive regular up or down votes. It's interesting to note that discretionary spending rates have dropped in FY2011.